Diego Costa stars in Atletico's win
Diego Costa became a one-man wrecking crew to lead Atletico Madrid to a 3-0 home win over Valencia on Sunday, scoring two second-half goals and earning a pair of penalties to ensure Diego Simeone's side retained their share of the lead in La Liga with Barcelona.
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The Brazilian-born striker's brace drew him level with Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo as the league's leading scorers with 17 goals apiece through 16 rounds.
After a first half dominated by defence, Atletico pressed Valencia into their area and Diego Costa did the rest. He used a burst of speed capped with a stinging strike to beat goalkeeper Diego Alves on a counterattack for the 59th-minute opener.
Raul Garcia went on in the 61st minute for David Villa to reinforce Atletico's midfield and two minutes later fired in a loose ball.
Another charge into the area earned Diego Costa his first of two penalties when Victor Ruiz brought him down, only for Diego Alves to save his spot kick in the 74th minute.
But Diego Costa again forced defender Antonio Barragan to foul him as he penetrated the box. This time he blasted the ball over the goalie in the 81st minute, sealing Atletico's eighth win in as many league games at Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Atletico's title challenge gains strength with each passing round as they keep pace with defending champion Barcelona and has crosstown Real Madrid trailing by five points. They have allowed a league-low nine goals and have found their scorer in Diego Costa, helped by Villa and Garcia, who have combined for another 15 goals in league play.
Also on Sunday, Real Sociedad's promising playmaker Ruben Pardo set up three goals to mastermind a 5-1 rout of bottom side Real Betis.
Sociedad may have flopped out of the Champions League, but they have found their form in the domestic competition where they have won six of their last eight games and climbed into sixth place and the Europa League positions.
The hosts overwhelmed Betis on the league debut of coach Juan Carlos Garrido, who replaced the fired Pepe Mel. The Seville-based side are now winless in the past nine rounds.
Pardo passed for two goals to striker Imanol Agirretxe and another from defender Jon Ansotegi. Antoine Griezmann scored his 10th goal in the league this season, leaving him third behind Diego Costa and Ronaldo in the scoring charts. Xabi Prieto rounded out the victory.
Athletic Bilbao drew 1-1 at Sevilla to remain in fourth place and the last Champions League spot, but eight points adrift of Madrid.
Alberto Moreno put the hosts ahead inside five minutes before Markel Susaeta capitalised on an error in the Sevilla defence to level.
Susaeta was presented with the chance to put Athletic ahead from the spot moments before the interval but Beto was equal to his effort, making a good low save.
Almeria settled for a 0-0 draw at home against Espanyol after their coach was sent from the sidelines and Verza missed a re-taken penalty in the first half.
Verza was forced to repeat a successful penalty in the 23rd minute after Almeria teammate Oscar Diaz had entered the area.
However, the Spanish midfielder could not covert at the second time of asking.
Almeria coach Francisco Rodriguez was ejected during a scuffle between both teams near the dugouts in the 32nd minute.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.